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Latest 21 March 2023

Water company told its business model is “based on breaching statutory duties” over sewage discharges into Manchester Ship Canal

John Davidson Photos / Alamy Stock Photo

In 2021, United Utilities discharged 81,588 sewage spills through its network of storm overflows – the largest number by any water company. Next week, the Environment Agency will release new annual figures for 2022, detailing how often water companies have pumped untreated sewage into our rivers, waterways and shores.

But as we wait to see if United Utilities tops the charts again, we have cast our minds back to the landmark challenge heard earlier this month in the Supreme Court against the water company’s attempts to avoid accountability over sewage dumping into the Manchester Ship Canal.

We supported the Environmental Law Foundation to bring an intervention during the two day hearing on 6 and 7 March. We want to help overturn two previous rulings in the High Court and Court of Appeal in favour of United Utilities, which shield it from private legal actions being brought by individuals against sewage discharges. 

This has effectively left the issue in the hands of the regulators. But the Environment Agency and Ofwat have become increasingly toothless in the wake of chronic Government underfunding – and either can’t or won’t act. So the outcome of this hearing will be hugely significant and we hope it will open up the opportunity for individuals to hold water companies to account.

The Supreme Court indicated it would be several months before we get a judgment.

As we wait for the outcome, we have been going over what was said in court. These incisive comments from Lord Reed, aimed at United Utilities’ legal counsel, particularly stood out:

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“The striking feature of your case is essentially a breach of a rule of law, that your business model is based on breaching statutory duties. That is an inevitable part of the way you carry out your business, you tell us. Not only is the court meant to tolerate this, but those who suffer loss as a result of unauthorised behaviour contrary, we are hypothesising, to a statutory duty are meant to grin and bear it.”

Lord Reed’s observation goes to the heart of why Good Law Project is supporting this important legal case. 

And we won’t stop there. We’re bringing two further legal challenges, in addition to this one, to use the law to safeguard our waterways in the face of inaction by the Government, water companies and the regulators. 

We have an upcoming High Court hearing against the Government’s failure to put in place a proper plan to stop the discharge of sewage into our rivers and coastal waters and an appeal to the Supreme Court which aims to protect the River Wye Special Area of Conservation from farming pollution.

And we’re working on more challenges in this space.

If you care about protecting our waterways, rivers and coastal waters and would like to support our work to hold the Government and water companies to account, please consider donating to the cases linked above or setting up a regular contribution here.